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The History of the Y2K Bug


There was a time at the end of 1999 when the media was ready to proclaim the end of the world over two digits. During that “Party like it’s 1999” year, everyone had the Y2K, or the “Millennium Bug” on their minds – at least a little bit.

In those days, computers were a little like magic to people who didn’t understand them well. Our finances, our communications, and our music were all going digital and few of us really knew how any of it worked. So when the media began hyping the dangers of the Y2K bug, it almost incited a panic.

The Y2K bug (Y meaning Year, and 2K as a shorthand for 2,000) was a reference to computer code that used only two digits to reference a year rather than four. Data storage was incredibly costly, and by prefixing the year with 19, it was possible to save quite a bit of space by simply entering ‘97’ for 1997. The problem arose when people realized that the change to the year 2,000 might cause errors that would make it impossible for computers to recognize dates. The error could even cause some systems to crash.

The fears were especially directed at industries like the financial sector, which had to calculate compound interest rates, and critical infrastructure in embedded systems like nuclear and water facilities. The fear was that these systems might crash, causing huge ripples in finance and public services. The media certainly played a role in hyping these concerns. According to some, it was the end of the world as we knew it.

Skeptics, however, were less concerned. The problem could be fixed fairly easily in most systems merely by adding the extra digits to the code. Those in the automation industry at the time largely viewed the panic as overblown. Still, there was a rush of software boasting disclaimers like “Y2K Compliant” and many infrastructure and manufacturing facilities worked well in advance to safeguard systems, rather than take a wait and see approach to the bug.

The preparation largely paid off. While there were some issues of systems going offline temporarily, for the most part, January first, 2000 came and went like any other day. We all felt a little silly for worrying the sky was going to fall. But much of it is thanks to the work of those who took the possible dangers seriously and updated their systems well in advance of the New Year.

The Y2K panic serves as a great illustration of why it’s important to keep systems up to date. While it’s uncommon for an issue to threaten so many systems, problems can still arise from using obsolete hardware and software. For example, operating systems may not be supported any longer, leaving them vulnerable to exploits and hacks. The many industrial control systems still using Windows XP would be well served to update their system so that it doesn’t rely on unsupported software.

Luckily, it’s very easy to update control systems using InduSoft Web Studio. With backward compatibility, old systems do not need to be rebuilt to run in the current version of the software. In addition, InduSoft offers import tools for older systems like FactoryTalk ME/SE, PanelMate, and PanelView.

Hopefully we won’t face another issue like the Y2K bug, but as the automation industry showed us then, it’s better to be proactive than wait for something to go wrong.

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